Discipline for children with ASDs

Discipline for children with ASDs


Autism Center gives great information about the problems surrounding discipline and the conflicts that arise because of them. Click here to read the full site Perhaps the number one problem in any family with children is differences of opinion about what constitutes appropriate discipline. These are only compounded when a child has a neuropsychiatric disability. The behavior problems are bigger, and solving them is more difficult. Conflicts between parents become more likely.

Uncontrollable tantrums or rages in an eight-year-old, self-injurious behavior, assaultive or destructive behavior, and communication problems between parent and nonverbal child were not dealt with by Dr. Benjamin Spock or Penelope Leach. Grandparents and friends haven’t a clue. The usual strategies may not work at all.

In particular, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment often seem to feed the parent-child conflagration. For one thing, autistic-spectrum people often have unusual perceptions of pain. There’s a danger that getting through to the child with a smack on the behind won’t work, and parents may then be tempted to go too far with physical punishment. In addition, hitting can reinforce a child’s assaultive or self-injurious behaviors. For these reasons, parents are strongly advised by almost every expert in autistic-spectrum disorders to find alternative methods of discipline.

And therein lies the rub.

With “normal” children, rules, reasoning, brief time-outs, and an occasional docked allowance will usually suffice. What do you do when the child can’t follow your reasoning or puts up a wall that you can’t get through? This is a struggle for any parent, and when two parents are at odds it only gets worse.

It’s very common for one partner to have a lower tolerance threshold, or a smaller repertoire of effective, nonviolent discipline strategies. This is where the arguments begin. One parent lets a behavior go, while the other is hugely annoyed by it and eventually blows up. One parent spanks, and the other rushes to comfort the child. One parent gives a time-out, and the other adds a second punishment because that doesn’t seem like enough. My husband and I had trouble for several years because he did not want to admit that our son had a problem. It was just too much for him to face. He felt that strict discipline would overcome the hyperactivity and the short attention span. Finally, after my son regressed to the point that he didn’t want to be touched and couldn’t find his way around, [my husband] came to the party. –Kim, mother of seven-year-old Brad (diagnosed atypical PDD, cognitive epilepsy/Landau-Kleffner syndrome)

Differences over discipline are often deep-seated. Most of what we know about raising well-behaved children we learned from our parents, for better or for worse. Chances are that not only were your parents imperfect disciplinarians at best, but also weren’t raising children with PDDs. Techniques that worked on you as a youngster may be totally inappropriate for your child.

The first key to resolving discipline disagreements is making a compact between parents. Behavior experts who have worked with families affected by a wide variety of neuropsychiatric disorders agree that this compact should include, at minimum, the following points:

  • The best discipline is positive, so parents must rely on providing incentives for desirable behavior before using punishment to control undesirable behavior. The “token economy” schemes used in many classrooms can be successfully adapted for home use, for example. Parents should also learn about alternative strategies for addressing the roots of problem behavior, such as relaxation techniques.
  • Punishment must fit the crime. Whenever possible, the only punishment should be experiencing the natural and logical consequences of an undesirable action. For example, if Joe bites his friend Jane, Jane will go home. If Joe pours his juice on the table, Joe has to clean it up and does not get another glass of juice.
  • Parents must agree on basic guidelines for stopping undesirable behavior, such as whether physical punishment is ever acceptable, what form discipline will take, and under what circumstances it will be meted out.
  • If physical punishment is ever to be used, it should be a last resort and used in a controlled fashion.
  • Accordingly, parents must come up with a common set of effective disciplinary measures for undesirable behavior. These may include loss of allowance or privileges, addition of chores or other responsibilities, time-outs, and, for older children, grounding.
  • Parents must agree to avoid calling the child (or each other) hurtful names or using other verbal abuse.
  • Parents need to support each other in the effort to remain calm during behavior problems. If a parent is losing control, he or she should feel free to turn the situation over to the other partner long enough to take a “parental time-out.”
  • Parents must not, however, give one partner the permanent role of disciplinarian. The old “wait ’til Daddy gets home” scenario lets one parent off the hook, and encourages children to be fearful and manipulative. For children with neurological problems, delayed discipline can be particularly confusing.
  • If an undesirable behavior happens repeatedly, and neither incentives nor disincentives seem to curb it, parents should agree to look closer for hidden causes. Behavior analysis techniques can be very useful in this regard.
  • Most importantly, parents must present a united front, even when they don’t actually agree. Arguments over discipline should not occur in front of the child. If Mom thinks Joe needs a time-out for throwing blocks, but Dad thinks a reprimand is sufficient, Dad can let her know how he feels while Joe is in time-out. Next time it happens, they’ll be in full agreement about the proper consequence for throwing things.


Parents do need to remember that people with PDDs may respond to discipline unevenly. A child who has rages that arise out of seizures or other neurological events may not be able to gain self-control at these times, but can do so when the behavior is a garden-variety temper tantrum. People with PDDs may perform acts compulsively and be unable to control these actions by force of will alone. Interventions may have to include protective devices, security measures, and medication.

The bottom line is that you know your child. To be effective, the discipline plan you create must be individualized, and must be flexible enough to take into account the child’s mental and neurological realities.

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